By Colin McGowan | 11 November 2008
Betz’s review elucidates far more thoroughly than I could just how immense Black Milk’s latest great leap forward is, but, to summate: Tronic is hot shit, a smoldering mass of soulful fury leaving we Glowdians with jaws agape as we view a rapid metamorphosis in slow motion. The D’s most prevalent producer on the mic was kind enough to drop us a line to discuss his growth as an artist, how he approached his latest album, and Detroit’s burgeoning rap scene.
CMG’s Colin McGowan (CMG): What do you feel is the biggest difference between Tronic and Popular Demand (2007)? How did you grow as an artist?
Black Milk (BM): You definitely have to keep in mind that I did everything from the production to rhymes, you know what I’m saying? I feel like that’s the main thing you hear when you listen to Tronic— the main difference you hear everything is full. The beats are bigger, the mixes are bigger, the rhymes are better, and everything is structured how it’s supposed to be. Like, Popular Demand was feel-good, soulful music, and this new album still has soul, but it’s a bit more electronic, more futuristic.
CMG: Yeah, I noticed that shift. You’ve never shied away from being a Dilla follower, but on this new record I hear something like a Dungeon Family sound on some of the hooks and such. What influenced that change in your sound?
BM: I didn’t want to do the same stuff, so when I started working on the new record, I wanted to take a new, sort of futuristic sense, and a heavier sound. That’s what I basically did. You know, I’m trying to think of what other styles of beats I could make, and what other genres of music I could sample. So, you get a little bit of rock, you get a little bit of funk, you get a little bit of soul, and you get some electronic stuff. And I wanted to put all that stuff in one album, but with each track fitting into the scheme, so it doesn’t sound like it’s all over the place.
CMG: I also noticed that your flow really seemed to grow over from Popular Demand to this new album. Did you focus more on rapping this time around; where was your focus, specifically?
BM: Oh, I focused on the flow, songwriting, and the production in equal amounts of time. With the beats coming first, and making sure the beat is right, and then once I got more than half the track done, I started writing. So I would write to the track, and this time around I really critiqued each word, each bar, like, make sure everything is right. At the end, after I layed down the vocals, I’d probably go back, and add more music to the beat and just add different change-ups, and, you know, I worked on my tracks all the way up until the point they were mastered. I kept tweaking, and going back to the song to figure out what I could do to make it even better. That was from the production to even the rhymes. If I didn’t like how my voice sounded on a certain track, I’d change it. So, almost all the tracks, I recorded three or four different times. I was very strategic in how I wanted to sound. It had to sound right.
CMG:You touched on this a little bit, but are there any particular challenges to being a producer rapping over your own beats? Because obviously, you don’t have producers sending you stuff, so you’re not attacking fresh material. So what’s your approach towards that?
BM: I feel like it’s really just perfect ‘cause during this album I wasn’t placing beats on other people’s albums, and when I make my own beats—I feel like I don’t have to make a name for myself by putting beats on other people’s albums ‘cause I can just make my own album. So that’s an advantage I got over other beatmakers.
CMG: How do you dole out your beats? Like, do you make a beat and say “I’m gonna jump on this right away,” or “Elzhi would sound great on this”? Or do you make beats for specific rappers? How does that whole process work?
BM: Sometimes, depending on the track style, everything I make, I don’t wanna rhyme over. Y’know, the beat could be dope as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for me. So I think maybe another artist might want it or somebody from my crew. But, actually, for the new album, I didn’t do no outside production. I just locked myself in the lab and every beat I made was for me. If I didn’t like the beat, I cut the machine off—it ain’t worth it. A couple beats I probably saved, but most of the time, I felt if the beat wasn’t good enough for the album, I just scrapped it. So I didn’t do anything outside while I was making this album.
CMG: We, as writers, like to sort of tag “scenes.” And it would seem the Detroit hip-hop scene is growing immensely recently with yourself, Elzhi, Invincible, and some others. How would you, since you’re in the belly of the beast, describe Detroit’s rap scene?
BM: Aw man, it’s just growing. The fanbase is growing, and people are starting to pay attention a little more. All the Detroit artists, everyone’s got the same goal, and we’re all working towards that. So, all the artists here are working together, there’s no beef or nothing. Everyone’s helping everyone out, and that makes it even better when everyone’s feeding off each others’ energy; feeding off each others’ creativity to accomplish one goal.
CMG: That’s cool to hear it’s like a big community up there.
BM: Yeah, Detroit’s a big city, but at the same time it’s still small compared to Cali or New York; especially the hip-hop scene, which isn’t that big. You know, the underground hip-hop scene—everyone works together.
CMG: Do you keep up with other hip-hop scenes? Like, LA’s got a producer explosion going on, and the South seems to be into the whole synths and 808 stuff. Do you ever draw inspiration from those styles and scenes?
BM: Well, it’s more specific producers, really. Like, I really like Jake One—I might get on the phone with him every once in awhile. His new album White Van Music is absolutely ridiculous; I think it’s one of the dopest-produced albums that’s come out this year. So I’ll get on the phone and chop it up with him for a little bit; see what he’s working on. DJ Khalil out in Cali is another one. Those are two of the producers I check for. I mean, those guys are in the underground and sort of my competition, but it’s fun, and sometimes I do draw some inspiration from those guys.
CMG: You touched on this a bit, mentioning the underground, but I feel like artists like Lil’ Wayne and Kanye are sort of pushing the boundaries of rap from very prominent positions, and the line between underground and mainstream is becoming blurred. Do you agree that the divide between indie and commercial is lessening or do you feel there’s still a big gap there?
BM: I mean, I don’t think it’s coming together, necessarily. There’s still a big gap between underground and mainstream artists. But I do know this: that mainstream, major-label artists are checking for artists in the underground; they know what’s going on. They might not cosign an artist or feature an artist on their album, but they’re aware of what we’re doing in the underground; they see who’s up-and-coming, so it’s good to see they’re at least paying attention.
CMG: Do you feel like it’s plausible that you could make that leap then, if it is somewhat of a leap, from the mainstream to the underground without a cosign or a feature?
BM: Yeah, I do. All that takes is a hit single and a major label push behind you. So, if I ever did get on a major label, I would try to make something that would appeal to the masses, but still without compromising or losing the fans I have now. I’ll always keep them in mind, but I think bridging the gap is possible.
CMG: In that vein, where do you go from here? What’re you working on right now?
BM: Right now I’m just gonna be promoting Tronic and getting out on the road, doing a lot of show dates. After that, my next project I’ll be focusing on is Guilty Simpson, which we’re going to try to drop the beginning of next year. We’re about three or four songs away from wrapping that album up.